- The Yacoubian Building:A Slice of Pre-January 25 Egyptian Society?
In a 2011 interview on the privately owned Egyptian satellite channel CBC, Emad El Din Adeeb, the political commentator and founder of the media production conglomerate Good News Cinema, offered his analysis of the Egyptian Revolution of January 25, 2011, the rise of the Islamists as an electoral bloc, and the last days of the Mubarak regime. Toward the end of the interview, the presenter, Lamis El Hadidi (curiously, Adeeb's sister-in-law), gave her guest the opportunity to respond to viewers' questions and comments that had been relayed to her via Facebook; many of the viewers accused Adeeb of hypocrisy and of being a remnant and a beneficiary of the ancien régime. Interestingly, in defending himself, Adeeb asked the audience: "How can I be part of the old guard or affiliated with the Mubarak regime when I was the one who produced the film The Yacoubian Building ['Imarat Ya'qubiyan; Marwan Hamed, 2006]—one of the most important films in Egyptian cinema in the last decade to tackle the moral bankruptcy of the regime and to expose the social and political malaise that blighted Egypt during Mubarak's tenure?"
Contrary to how pundits have labeled the Egyptian uprising as a Facebook and Twitter revolution, I argue that analyzing it in terms of digital activism alone cannot do justice to years of on-the-ground anti-neoliberal and pro-labor rights activism.1 Furthermore, other media formats have played a key role in social mobilization and in voicing discontent. Transnational satellite channels, independent newspapers, both commercial and independent films—that is, old media formats— contributed, alongside their new media progeny (SMS messages, cellphone films, Facebook, Twitter), to the technological scaffolding of [End Page 156] the revolt. The proliferation and popularity of political and social (both religiously inflected and secular) talk shows gave people the opportunity to discuss, inter alia, corruption, policy, harassment, sectarianism, poverty, and unemployment—key issues fueling the uprising. Moreover, in the past five years, the ascent of a commercial cinematic genre which Viola Shafik dubs "shantytown film" has helped provoke debates about informality, poverty, corruption, and extremism.2 The growth of a strong independent film movement has enabled young filmmakers to circumvent both governmental and street censorship, allowing these film activists to explore topics that are deemed taboo for commercial, mainstream cinema with greater ease. Indeed, the very nature of independent filmmaking in Egypt allows its community to discuss social issues and taboos more freely, because independent films do not require a license from the Egyptian censor's bureau, which has to approve screenplays before movies can go into production. Also, because independent films are mostly shot in digital formats, they frequently bypass the need for a public screening license, airing instead in art galleries and cultural centers, and at local film festivals.
In short, what we have here is a panoply of media formats (both old and new) that has created avenues for disenfranchised publics to address, discuss, and debate their situation. Hence, I believe that a digitextual analysis, one that seeks to investigate continuities and ruptures between old and new media formats, is crucial to understanding the mediated precursors of the Egyptian Revolution.3 Undoubtedly, the role of social media (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, Twitter) has been potent throughout the region. In Egypt, where emergency laws in place since the assassination of President Sadat have resulted in the stifling of political life in the public sphere, social media has helped mitigate the sense of atomization that comes from both draconian extralegal measures and the neoliberal imperative that has become de rigueur in Egypt for the past decade. YouTube videos of police torture within police stations, cell-phone clips of the beating of the Alexandrian youth Khaled Saeed in an Internet café, and Facebook groups dedicated to organizing boycotts, sit-ins, and civil disobedience have undoubtedly made people aware of many of the excesses of the regime and its security apparatus, thus enabling them to debate these issues and form responsive virtual communities. But social media cannot be read as the original or the sole means by which the Arab...